Yunel Escobar has struggled at the plate so far this year, and it’s left me wondering if we should be worried. Despite a subpar .628 OPS through 28 games, Escobar leads the team in plate appearances. His struggles have been well cloaked by hot starts from infield partner Kelly Johnson and super-powered DH Edwin Encarnacion, as well as slow starts from nominal No. 3 and 4 hitters Jose Bautista and Adam Lind.
Given his inconsistent history with Atlanta, it’s surprising that we haven’t seemed to hear more about Escobar’s struggles so far. From here, it’s a good thing, though; the Braves ran him out at the first sign of trouble, rather than looking at his history and writing off the struggles as a blip on the radar. The Blue Jays went out of their way to welcome Escobar to the organization when he was traded here in 2010 (perhaps that’s part of why we haven’t heard anything) and the club is continuing to take a thoughtful approach. But let’s take a look at the numbers and see what’s gone wrong so far.
We mentioned a .628 OPS for Escobar so far, compared to his more respectable .782 last year. His isolated power is currently .082, down from a career mark of .110, and his 3.79 groundball-to-flyball ratio is much lower than his career 2.14 mark. Watching him hit, we can see more ground balls and not as many balls driven into the gaps, which is what he needs to do to be successful. I was among those who were scratching their heads when John Farrell flipped him and Johnson in the order, because while getting KJ more at bats was a definite plus, I thought that, given what we had seen from him so far this season, Escobar would be a near lock for grounding into a double play with a man on first. Lyle Overbay‘s frustrating ground balls to second? Same idea, other side of the diamond.
Not only is Escobar not hitting for as much power, he’s not as patient as he has been in the past. His walk rate is at a paltry 5.3%, which is just over half of his career mark of 9.4%. As someone who hits early in the order, the Jays need him to be drawing walks and seeing more pitches, which is something he has done well previously. Yunel has typically been a very patient hitter, so it’s troubling to see that he’s not getting on-base as often. It could possibly mean that he’s pressing and feeling the frustration of not hitting as well. Additionally, his .274 BABIP is .274 compared to his career mark of .312 is not terribly low, but it’s still a slight variation from the norm, so we can’t write off any slow start to him being unlucky.
Thankfully, Escobar hasn’t brought any struggles at the plate into his play in the field. He has been dependable with his glove as usual, and his 13.4 UZR/150 backs that up. While that’s probably unsustainable, it’s still an excellent sign, and a big part of why the Jays have been continuing to play him every day. Defense is obviously still an organizational priority at that position, and continuing to play Escobar when he struggles to hit shows the value they place on it and allows him to relax and figure out his issues without looking over his shoulder — an issue that we’ve seen with other managers at other positions on the diamond.
Looking at the statistics, we can see that there are some unusual indicators from Escobar’s hitting so far. Fewer walks and less power suggest a player who might be pressing some at the plate, though perhaps it’s a normal monthly variation that we’d see over the course of a season (like, say, Escobar’s September last year). Personally, I’d say it’s still early yet to be very concerned about it. He’s 9-for-20 (.450) in his last five games with a 1.126 OPS, and he has hit safely in nine of his last 10 games, so he should return to his norm before long. The Blue Jays’ patient, measured approach with their players helps if one is inconsistent, and in a month or so, we’ll all forget this happened. If Escobar continues to struggle deeper into the season, then perhaps we can start to wonder if and when the much-hyped Adeiny Hechavarria will be ready to go.
What do you think? Should we worry about Yunel Escobar, or is it too early to be hitting the panic button?